A garden is a place to play, learn, explore, work, relax and connect with nature and each other. Supervised babies and toddlers usually enjoy time touching and eating things in the garden. Talk about your surroundings as you show them things. Being outdoors provides health benefits and promotes calm, and growing some of your own food is the ultimate way to interact with the earth. Gardening is dirty work, though, so avoid any fuss about mess by wearing appropriate clothing for the job.
Preschoolers are often enthusiastic gardeners. The magic of propagating seeds appeals to their sense of wonder. They are usually eager to help – especially if moving dirt, using water or harvesting are the tasks at hand! Working together, they will soon learn how to grow their own plants and care for these themselves. Edible gardens often inspire picky eaters to try a wider variety of foods.
Life cycles, cacti, bonsai, cooking, craft, and wild creatures will fascinate many older children. They may enjoy doing yard work for pocket money and explore other garden enterprises as well. Big kids can be genuinely helpful in the garden and gain much from working alongside an adult. The varied tasks in a garden provide pleasant physical activity.
I have always had my hands in the earth. I was blessed with gardening parents and grandparents. They allowed me to save pumpkin seeds from the kitchen scraps, bury the lorikeets’ seed and plant cuttings from other gardens. I recall the times they bought me a packet of flower seeds or a punnet of tiny plants especially for my enjoyment. It didn’t always fit their landscaping plans, and I probably killed more plants than I grew… but I have a connection with the earth that originated in my childhood gardens. Those gardens included a few pots on a window ledge in inner Sydney, acres to roam far from anywhere, shared gardens in rented units and then an average suburban backyard. Sometimes they were even borrowed gardens at grandparents’ or neighbours’ homes, or even a couple of carrot tops to sprout on my dresser.
If you’re not yet a gardener – explore the joy and magic of growing plants alongside your children. Start simply and grow something you love to see or eat (you’ll remember to look after it that way). Beg or buy a few very basic supplies and tools, some seeds or seedlings and set them up in a place with at least four hours of full sun a day. Keep the plants well watered (check the soil just under the surface, when it’s dry water well in the cooler parts of the day). Try some container gardening or a small bed before digging up the yard for a large veggie plot!
While some adults see them as out-of-place or untidy, straggly sweet peas or giant pumpkins climbing a wire fence are a thing of beauty to children. If you are a keen gardener – let the children learn, have their own space and do it their way. One of my toddlers saved weeds I discard and potted them up, nurturing them until they flowered. She named them and took them off to play, often forgetting their whereabouts so that we'd have to search for her little friend and return it to the garden area before bath time.
If you go outside to work in the garden for part of each day, even if only a few minutes to water and harvest before dinner, you may find that your children won’t be distracted by the swings or trampoline – they will want to garden with you.
There is a lot of focus on indoor living for children – books, television, toys, games, puzzles, learning and socialisation. Children spend a lot of time in the car, the house, shops, classrooms and other man-made places - often with a lot of noise or other people. To have some peaceful space outdoors helps children recognise the natural rhythm and essence of life. Nature works its magic with little input from us – we can be extraordinarily busy or even feeling sick – but our garden will keep on growing. All it takes is good food (some quality mulch, compost or a natural fertiliser applied every so often), and enough water (consider an irrigation line or well-placed sprinkler if you can’t hand-water regularly). Most libraries stock Jackie French titles and other Australian books about easy gardening. Read about no-dig gardens in books or on the Internet and employ these methods so that it won’t seem like work at all!
As a home educating family, our garden is more than a place of fun. It’s our multi-sensory world of learning. We grow some of our own food in gardens, on fruit trees and vines and by raising hens for eggs. As we work together in the garden, each success and failure is a lesson. For a few years, the children sold excess produce at a roadside stall and so the learning continued to another level. Outdoors, children interact with the world and each other in a more cooperative and loving way.
Recording your gardening experiences helps preserve these family memories. You may choose a written journal, video, photographs, scrapbook, nature diary, stories and poems or folder of artwork to record beauty, magic, science, life cycles, surprises, visitors and more. Nothing inspires creativity like Mother Nature.
A garden is more than just plants. It’s a realm that runs parallel to ours where we can touch and be touched by nature.
Places to go – Nurseries, seed display in stores, garage sales (for plants, tools and pots), markets, Community and Children’s Gardens, neighbour’s gardens, botanical gardens.
Suppliers – hardware, supermarket, mail order seed companies, roadside plant stalls, markets, seed savers & gardening groups
TV – Gardening Australia, Backyard Science, dirtgirlworld
Books – The ABC Book of Gardening for Kids by Helen Cushing, A Child’s Organic Garden by Lee Fryer, Container Gardening for Kids by Ellen Talmage, and Learn and Play in the Garden by Meg Herd, KidsGrow Munch & Crunch Garden (pdf)